We’re told that technological advancements and disruptions are positive for Canada. But we shouldn’t let technology alone frame the future of work.

The so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us, altering the way Canadians live and work.

As we look at how the future of jobs might unfold, a dominant and unchallenged narrative is already emerging, and its implications are alarming. Governments and industry tell us that the technological dividends from this revolution will increase prosperity and create new job opportunities. We expect that technology will also determine which skills are needed, such as coding, and we therefore allow it to steer the future of learning and work.

The idea of a tech-powered world has been carefully crafted by industry to promote a technologically determined future of work, and it is already influencing regulations, policies and the popular imagination. To hear this narrative at its loudest, we do not have to go farther than the Canadian government’s recent $950-million investment in five Silicon-Valley-inspired innovation superclusters from coast to coast. This injection is “expected to create more than 50,000 middle-class jobs and grow Canada’s economy by $50 billion over the next 10 years.” G7 governments including Canada and G20 countries are promising new investments to reskill workers for the STEM fields and encouraging workplace flexibility, while promoting entrepreneurship.

And yet, the benefits of technological advancements have been highly concentrated in the hands of a few tech giants and this may deepen prevailing inequalities, as noted by the Global Commission on the Future of Work. A broader public debate in Canada is needed to ensure a safe and inclusive digital future for all that will not allow unfettered technological change alone to dictate a precarious digital future of work.

Gig work: Reducing humans to a service

The dominant narrative around technological change has also influenced the public debate about the “gig economy.” Also known as the on-demand, platform or sharing economy, the gig economy connects workers with clients for short-term tasks at a set rate, reduces the quality of work.

The uncertain size of Canada’s digital economy and the number of digital workers has led Statistics Canada to conduct its first household survey in June 2018 to ask Canadians how they are participating in the digital economy, which will also include Canadians’ purchasing and earnings online. Gig work is often viewed as providing a glimpse into a tech-powered future of work, where workers are recharacterized as independent but highly precarious micro-entrepreneurs.

Although its size is small, the gig economy is growing exponentially year on year. Worldwide, the gig economy grew by 26 percent in 2017. India accounts for about a quarter of global gig workers, the United States has 12 percent, and 1 percent are in Canada, according to the Oxford Internet Institute. The gig economy’s digital work platforms like Etsy, Uber, Fiverr, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and UpWork have allowed workers to access new income streams that may afford them greater autonomy and flexibility. For employers, gig workers are less expensive than full-time staff and the talent pool is wider.

The employer’s perspective is summarized in the Canadian Chamber of Commerce’s 2018 report on future skills. It refers to “innumerable small businesses and part-time work arrangements created online, which challenge standard definitions of ‘jobs.’ While these do raise valid concerns about stability and job quality, this also represents an opportunity for workers who would not otherwise have the chance to participate in the economy at all and allows many entrepreneurs to start a small business that they otherwise could not.”

But these changes have come at a cost. Jeremias Prassl, a professor of law at Oxford University, challenges the technological utopian narrative in his new book, Humans as a Service: The Promise and Perils of Work in the Gig Economy. He and others like Lilly Irani and Christian Fuchs argue that instead of giving workers greater autonomy and flexibility, the gig economy makes them ever more commodified and controlled by the digital work platforms’ strict terms and conditions, as well as their compliance and rating systems.

Technological innovations today are intentionally designed to “disrupt” by circumventing regulations and skirting employment laws and standard employment relations. “Work, in short, is legally protected; entrepreneurship is not,” declares Prassl. The language that encourages entrepreneurship and flexibility is part of a broader trend of unbundling work into teleworking, outsourcing, temp agencies, zero-hour contracts (where no minimum working hours are guaranteed) and now gig work.

Disruptive technology and innovation act as a glimmering digital veil that often makes digital labour invisible to the law, while leaving regulators asking, “Where and who is the employer?” This new form of unseen labour reduces the many workers behind the gig economy to mere services that could be traded like a commodity. As gig work persists and expands into more areas of the Canadian economy, we must ask, “Who benefits from flexibility: the worker, the industry or the platform?”

What nonstandard employment means for young workers

The quality of future jobs should matter as much as the number of jobs. So far, the narrative around technological disruption has also largely ignored the quality of work to come. We are seeing a growth in nonstandard forms of employment and a decline in trade union membership. The informality of unseen labour behind the gig economy is expected to drive down job quality as well. These trends have resulted in job quality in Canada that’s at an almost three-decade low. There are fewer full-time paying jobs for many Canadian workers, especially youth.

Many young Canadians are frustrated that realizing their aspirations and the Canadian dream is now only a remote possibility. Members of the younger generation are deeply worried that they might no longer have the opportunity to achieve higher social status, and inherited wealth might become the most important factor in social mobility and well-being. Many are underemployed, working in precarious jobs — those with low levels of job security, income security and economic stability — or have left the labour market altogether.

In 2017, 30 percent of workers in Canada between the ages of 25 and 54 were in nonstandard forms of work. The situation is even more dire for Canadian youth, over 60 percent of whom work in nonstandard employment.

The growth of nonstandard employment has major impacts on Canadians. Ontario’s Changing Workplaces Review, released in 2017, highlighted that the poverty rates of workers in nonstandard employment are two to three times higher than those of Canadians who have traditional work. On average, workers in nonstandard employment receive $15 an hour, compared with $24 an hour for workers in standard employment relationships.

The future of good jobs matters

Technology alone should not be determining the future of work and good jobs.

We need to question the narrative of “technological innovation, greater workplace flexibility and more entrepreneurship” as the inevitable way of the future. These terms are too often used to disguise the ongoing pressures bearing down on decent work and a dignified life.

Decent work norms and strong labour institutions are needed more than ever as we embrace the digital transformations and design, develop and deploy new technologies that complement workers. The changing nature of work must be shaped by these norms and institutions and not by the veil of technology, to ensure that we have a fairer economy and that globalization works for everyone.

A key question we must ask as we reimagine Canada’s future in the digital age is “Whom will the changing nature of jobs and technological innovation serve?”

This article is part of the The Changing Nature of Work special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock/By Power best


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